The Menacing ‘Sopranos’ Role Ed O’Neill Auditioned for Prior to Season 2

When you think about the success of The Sopranos, you have to give credit to the show’s villains over those six seasons and 86 episodes. Early on, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) faced the most formidable villain of all: his mother Livia (Nancy Marchand).

Later, we saw Tony grapple with the likes of the obnoxious Ralph Cifaretto (Joey Pantoliano) and the grouchy Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent). But early on in season 2 viewers got to know an old-school nemesis who could strike fear into hearts with the best of them: Richie Aprile.

Just making the rounds on his first day out of prison proves eventful for Richie, played by David Proval. Viewers get an idea of his style when he bashes the head of a pizzeria owner with a coffee pot (mid-conversation). Richie means business, and his ultraviolent tactics leave little doubt about how he plans to conduct himself.

For Sopranos producers, finding the right actor to play Richie was difficult. Terence Winter, who wrote and produced dozens of the series’ episodes, recalled some of the actors who read for the part. Among them was Modern Family star Ed O’Neill.

Ed O’Neill tried out for Richie Aprile ahead of ‘The Sopranos’ Season 2

Ed O'Neill gestures in a scene from 'Modern Family'
Ed O’Neill and Sofia Vergara in ‘Modern Family’ | Eric McCandless via Getty Images

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On a visit to the July 27 edition of the Talking Sopranos podcast, co-host Steve Schirripa (Bobby Baccala) asked Winter if he recalled any big actors who read for roles but didn’t get the part. Right away, Winter thought of the search for Richie Aprile.

“We had a lot of actors who came in [for that part],” Winter recalled. He pointed to Ed Marinaro, the former NFL player and actor who worked on Hill Street Blues and other series, as one of the names that jumped out.

Winter also recalled O’Neill’s audition. “Ed O’Neill came in and read and was really great,” Winter said. Just glancing at the listed heights of Marinaro (6’2″) and O’Neill (6’1″), it appears producers were originally looking for someone who could physically match up with Gandolfini’s Tony.

But it didn’t pan out that way. “A lot of these guys were big,” Winter said. “Some were even bigger than Jim. But it wasn’t working. Jim was so overpowering.” In the end, they chose an actor who didn’t come close to the physical stature of Gandolfini.

David Proval won the Richie part with his ability to do ‘menace’

Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) speaks to Richie Aprile (David Proval) in the mall. | HBO

When it came time to choose their Richie Aprile, Sopranos producers went with the performer most adept at intimidation — and that was Proval. In his case, it didn’t matter that he’s listed at not quite 5’7″. Proval made it happen with his eyes.

“It’s all in those eyes,” Winter told Schirripa and Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti) on Talking Sopranos. “It’s obviously not a physical thing. But there’s such a menace there.” In auditions with Gandolfini, they saw Proval’s ability to transcend any physical limitations.

“You saw [Proval] stand up to Jim and you say, ‘OK, I believe this guy,'” Winter said. “Not to take anything away from Ed Marinaro or Ed O’Neill, but it just wasn’t clicking. David Proval was so scary, and that worked [for Richie].”